The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule

The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule

The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule

The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule

Synopsis

In this wide-ranging study, Nicholas Eberstadt demonstrates that some of the most basic of today's domestic and foreign policies have been buttressed or justified by what turns out to be mis-analysis or misuse of available facts and figures. The Tyranny of Numbers not only warns about the ways the statistics are being misused in government policy in the United States and abroad but explains how this process can end up injuring vulnerable groups or distorting the workings of the democratic system.

Excerpt

Somewhere in the works of George Orwell there is an account of a reaction to the arrival of American troops in Great Britain in the middle of World War II. It would seem the rumor went round certain “right left” circles, as Orwell called them, that the Yanks had not come to help mount an invasion of the Continent. Rather, they had come to put down an incipient workers’ revolt in the war industries—some vague allusion to Petrograd in 1917. Orwell commented that in order to believe such an absurdity, it was necessary to have gone to a university. Any cabdriver, he continued, would have told you it was nonsense.

So would Nicholas Eberstadt, who in our time is becoming the counterpart of Orwell’s cabdriver (albeit his subject is as often the inanities of the political right as of the left). in our more democratic setting, he is assuredly university-educated. He is currently a visiting fellow of the Harvard University Center for Population and Development Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. But he has retained and indeed developed an uncanny ability to ask the innocent, devastating question; to spot the stunningly illuminating obvious.

Eberstadt is by training a demographer and would not, I surmise, dissent from the stern assessment that demography is destiny. It is all the more important then for those who would know the future to get their numbers straight. Early in his academic training and his published works, Eberstadt kept spotting instances where people who had every reason to get things straight got them all mixed up instead. He acquired a mission of sorts: asking the obvious.

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